The Misty Mountains

Northern Terminus to Harts Pass (30.6 PCT miles)

 Cheri next to the first PCT sign we saw south of monument 78. 

Cheri next to the first PCT sign we saw south of monument 78. 

On the Canadian side of the border a big sign reads "Welcome to Canada" while on the US side, nothing. At least there isn't a "Keep Out" sign, or a fence. Just a broad linear swath clear-cut through the otherwise dense forest stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction to mark the international border. We might have stepped a few feet into Canada, or maybe not. And with that, we headed back up the trail on the official start of our SOBO thru-hike. The weather shifted towards bigger patches of blue sky and even some sustained sun as we made the steady but gradual climb back to our tent at Hopkins Lake.

 High angle snow field climbing in crampons.  

High angle snow field climbing in crampons.  

We didn't need to get much mileage in, but the mosquitos were terrible at the lake and we had our eye on a campsite on the top of Lakeview Ridge that we'd seen yesterday. We made our hot meal ("dinner") for an afternoon snack then packed up to continue south. Hiking back up the switchbacks we had sunshowers followed by an intense double rainbow spanning from Hopkins Pass to the lake. At the long, steep, exposed snowfield we stopped to put on our crampons, for the first time this trip, and confidently scaled the ridge to get back to the base of the Devils Stairway. Shortly afterwards, we reached the highest point in WA along the PCT (~7100ft) then continued down the ridge to our campsite.

 Late evening rainbow, storms and alpine lakes.

Late evening rainbow, storms and alpine lakes.

We had the ridge to ourselves with glorious panoramic views. Dark & ominous Three Fools Peak lurked in low clouds nearby, while we had unobstructed views to the west towards the snow-capped Cascades under high billowy clouds. To the east the sky was dark with distant rain over the drainage of Chuchuwanteen Creek with Soda Peak and Smoky Mountain standing guard. Patches of sunlight broke through the storm clouds now and again, and we were treated to a second rainbow for the day. From the very edge of our ridge I discovered that two unnamed aquamarine alpine lakes were visible far below. I hoped for a picture-worthy sunrise from our spectacular campsite, though as we went drifted off to sleep a light rain was falling and we had to close the doors of the tent fly.

It rained nearly all night long, quite heavily at times. We both woke before dawn to the sound of heavy rain mixed with sleet and I realized there would be no sunrise photos today. The tent was warm & dry, and we drifted back to sleep. Around 5am I woke again to a different sound and looked under the fly to see hail piling up under my vestibule. Just then there was a flash of lightening followed a second later by a peal of thunder. The wind picked up and shook the tent as the lightening and thunder continued. It seemed the storm was here to stay, and the fly was not well-secured for our exposed ridgetop location. Cheri fixed the point of attachment between the tent & fly that we overlooked last night, then we both put on rain gear and braved the storm to set the guy lines. I cleaned accumulated hail away from the tent corners and got back inside. Half an hour later the hail let up and I got out again to grab the dishes so we could eat brekkie, to discover it was snowing! It was light blowing snow at first but soon wet, heavy flakes started falling and quickly started to weigh down the tent fly.

 The sun making an appearance over the switchbacks to Rock Pass. 

The sun making an appearance over the switchbacks to Rock Pass. 

Over bowls of cold cereal (with intermittent tent-shaking to send the snow off of the fly) we discussed our options, and decided to wait out the weather. We were warm, dry, had plenty of food, and more than enough time to make our Rainy Pass meeting time even with a full day of no hiking. We didn't have much water but could easily get through a full day and re-assess. Neither of us is familiar with weather patterns of the North Cascades, but it seemed that a mid-July storm was unlikely to maintain this intensity for more than a day and eventually the sun would come out. With hunger abated and a plan made, we went back to sleep. By 7am it was calm outside. We opened up the fly and found we were surrounded by thick grey mist. We could see 50-75' at most before the surrounding trees faded into the fog. We waited a bit longer to be sure the storm had mellowed for good, then gradually packed up our tent and gear. Although we had waited what seemed like an eternity for the storm to end, we were on the trail before 9am. Our ridge had 1-2" of fresh snow, more in drifts on the windward side of the tent and trees, but the trail quickly drops from there and we found only small piles of hail along the edges and no difficulty in navigating. The thick damp mist accompanied us all the way beyond Woody Pass, where we ran across a trio of older guys finishing up their WA section-hike and exchanged quick stories about the nights weather. Just a mile later as we started to climb Rock Pass the mist started to break up and we needed sunglasses for the brightness of the snow.

The weather was what we affectionately termed "WA mix" (periods of light rain, fleeting sun, and generally grey sky with high clouds) for the rest of the afternoon and we made good time on familiar trail. We met a pair of peak baggers at Holman Pass, and passed a couple of backpackers further south. We hiked all the way to our favorite campsite from last summer, in Tamarack Basin. It is nestled against a mountain, has great views of surrounding peaks, and most importantly is full of tamaracks. We saw a few thru-hikers headed north as we picked the prime spot up above the trail near a small creek frigid from snow melt. Over dinner 2 more groups of hikers arrived and set up tents nearby, and as we all prepared to settle in for the night the storm clouds built up once again, though we did have a brief orange glow on the horizon to signal sunset. Throughout the night I awoke to hear the familiar light staccato of rain on the fly.

On Day 5 I got up to make brekkie (I usually wake up first and start the stove) and found the basin blanketed in low grey clouds. We broke camp as our closest neighbors were starting to eat and we stopped by to say hello. They were a couple roughly our age, who seemed fairly outdoorsy, just starting their own SOBO adventure. They still have to head north so they'll be a few days behind us.

As we started hiking the grey clouds overhead were joined by fog coming up from the valleys below. We walked south towards Harts Pass through the misty morning over familiar terrain and a couple of non-descript passes. We both felt good, the various niggles and discomforts of carrying a pack each day were starting to resolve. With no distant views, we focused on the details right along the trail. We had rare fleeting glimpses of mountains but in the time it took to get a camera out, the view would disappear. From the trail's high traverse the mist seemed to roll in like waves. The intermittent clanging of my ice-axe and crampons completed the sense of being out on an eerie foggy sea rather than high in the mountains. Soon enough, we heard the rumble of an engine and a few minutes later arrived at Harts Pass. We signed the trail register and sat down for a snack, just as it started to rain. We ate quickly and we're putting on our packs as a USFS ranger arrived and wished us well on our journey south.

-Andrew